In the midst of this pandemic that has most churches around the country closing their doors and shifting to online services, our readings this morning, especially from the Gospel according to St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, give us a clear picture of what it means to be the church. We don’t have the time to fully unpack either Acts 2 or Luke 24, so what I’m going to do is make some generalizations that will give us a basic outline or sketch, and my goal is for all of us to have a clear conception in our minds of who the church is supposed, so that, when we are able to gather back together, we can restart our Life Together with this clear, biblical and theological image of who we are supposed to be as members of the church of Jesus here in Largo, FL.
First, the church must be a community of people who are filled with the Holy Spirit. Without this first point, there isn’t much else to say. I’m going a bit outside the strict bounds of our readings this morning, but the reading from Acts 2 is the conclusion of the events that happen at Pentecost, where the church was formed by the outpouring of the Spirit from heaven in fulfillment of God’s promises from long ago. Peter famously quotes Joel 2 to explain what is happening, but there is far more than Joel 2 being fulfilled here. God had promised through the prophet Ezekiel that one day he would give his people a new heart and a new spirit, and even better than a new Spirit, he promised the he would put his Spirit within them (Ezek 36:26-27). Without our hearts of stone being turned into hearts of flesh, and without God’s Spirit within us, we cannot be his people, so we must be a community of people who are filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can be the people that God has called us to be.
Second, the means by which individuals enter the community of the people of God and receive the Holy Spirit is through baptism. When Peter is done preaching in Acts 2, Luke writes, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-38). The Holy Spirit was poured our on the first disciples in the upper room apart from any physical action on their part other than being in the room, but Peter says that for those who come to be disciples after this event, for everyone not in the upper room, the way that we receive the same gift of the Holy Spirit as them is through repentance and baptism.
Now, we should make clear that as Acts unfolds, the timing between the gift of the Holy Spirit and the action of being baptized is not always in this order, but what is clear from this passage and from the book of Acts is that baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit are theologically related events, even if the precise chronology of events isn’t always the same. So, for us, as a community of the people of God here in Largo, Florida, what this means it that if we want to be people filled with the Holy Spirit, we must also be baptized people. Regardless of whether one believes that there are two or seven sacraments or that everything is sacramental, there are only two sacraments ordained by Christ for his church, and we call these the dominical sacraments. The first of these is baptism, and it stands as our entry point into this community, which is why the baptismal font is right there at the doors into the sanctuary because it is through the water of baptism that we gain access into this community and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Third, the church is to be a community that is committed to Scripture, fellowship, sacramental worship, and daily prayer. There is a lot that could be said here, so I will try to be brief. After the events of Acts 2, what happens is not the establishment of a 501.c3. The church isn’t an organization. It’s certainly not a corporation. But it is a community, and it is a family. Those who repent, are baptized, and are filled with the Holy Spirit come together to form a new community and a new family in which they share their lives, their meals, and their resources. Luke says that they “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44) and that they were distributing to each according to their needs (Acts 2:45). This is, I think, difficult for us to fully comprehend when we have all been indoctrinated by the religion of capitalism since we were children, but even if the church may never get fully to this ideal, the church should be a place of generosity, where those who are more fortunate help those who are less fortunate because that’s what you do when you are a family. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the generosity of this church, from the moment I first arrived in Largo almost three years ago, has never ceased to amaze me. You all give generously to meet any need that arises, both inside and outside the church, and I pray that God continues to bless you for how quick you are to be a blessing to other people.
So, the church is to be a community and a family, but a community that is committed to certain things. Luke writes, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The apostle’s teaching is Scripture, fellowship is our shared life together in this new family, the breaking of bread refers generally to sharing meals together, but by the time Luke writes his Gospel and Acts, this phrase has also become shorthand for what we would call Holy Communion, and the prayers, as we see throughout the book of Acts, is a regular daily prayer life. This is what we must be committed to as a church if we are to be the community that God has called us to be. We must be committed to Scripture, to sharing our lives together, to sacramental worship, and to daily prayer. I would encourage you to use the prayer book for your daily prayer, but it matters far more that you are praying than whether you are praying Morning and Evening Prayer.
Lastly, then, and I’ll conclude here, the church’s worship must be sacramental because it is in the sacrament of Holy Communion that Jesus Christ is mostly clearly made known. I’ve laid this out before so I won’t belabor the point, but the basic form of Christian worship is laid out in Luke 24. You have the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament, but before both there is the historical events. The disciples say to Jesus, who they don’t recognize yet, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18). Before we even get to Scripture or the Sacrament, there is the fact that something happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and if we ever deny that that something happened, if we ever deny that Jesus Christ died and was raised, we are in fact no longer a church, and some of you lived through this experience.
So, before we get to worship, there is history, what happened, which we can never deny, and then there is Scripture. Scripture helps us interpret and understand what has happened. It is both the divine record and the divine commentary on the events that happened in Jerusalem, and without a steadfast commitment to Scripture, we will never understand what it is that God has done and who God has called us to be.
So there is history, there is Scripture, and then there is the last of the two dominical sacraments. There is Holy Communion. The risen Christ has been walking and talking with the disciples. He is the one who opens up the Scriptures to them and helps them to understand what it is that God has done in Jerusalem, and yet, they still don’t recognize him. Luke writes, “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them. [This is distinctly eucharistic language] And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:29–31). What this tells me is that history only gets us so far with out the prophetic and apostolic witness and commentary we find in Scripture, but even Scripture only gets us so far towards our goal of knowing and recognizing Jesus. For that, to truly see him, we need Holy Communion.
Now, I want to say one more thing here. I wrote about this in my email, so I won’t belabor the point. Holy Communion isn’t magic. The external components of communion, the bread and the wine, are signs, but not the grace itself, and it is your Father’s will to feed you and to be gracious to you even when you can’t partake physically of the externals of communion. I really do pray that you don’t feel somehow disconnected from God because you haven’t been able to take physical communion, but I do recognize that physical communion is the ideal, which is why we are offering communion for those who would like to come by the church after the service today. It is in the breaking of bread that Jesus Christ is made known.
So, our church must be spirit-filled. Our church must be a group whose entry point is baptism and repentance. Our church must be a generous community committed to Scripture, sharing our lives together, sacramental worship, and daily prayer, and our church’s worship must always be sacramental because baptism is our way in and holy communion, in the light of history and Scripture, is how Jesus continues to be made known to us. This is what it must mean for us to be disciples of Jesus Christ. This is what it must mean for us to be a church on the way, for, as Luke writes in the very last first of our reading, it was while the disciples were “on the road” or “on the way” (the Greek word is hodos, meaning “way”) that Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. This is who we must be: a church on the way, where Jesus is made known through the breaking of bread.